[Advaita-l] A note on adhyAsa

S.N. Sastri sn.sastri at gmail.com
Fri Sep 8 19:29:28 CDT 2006

A note on adhyAsa (superimposition)

  SrI Sankara says in his adhyAsabhAshya:-

  *adhyAsa *(superimposition) is the illusory appearance, in another place,
of an object seen earlier elsewhere. It is similar in nature to
recollection. (On seeing a rope in dim light and not recognizing it as a
rope, a person mistakes it for a snake which he has seen elsewhere. The
snake is not absolutely unreal, because it is actually experienced, and
produces the same effect, such as fear and so on, as a real snake would. At
the same time, it is not real, because it is no longer seen when the rope
has been recognized. It is therefore described as* anirvachanIya**,* or what
cannot be classified as either real or unreal).

In the above definition, the words 'similar in nature to recollection' are
intended to exclude recognition. 'Recollection' is of an object previously
experienced, but which is not now present before the person recollecting.
'Recognition' is when the same object previously experienced is again
present before the person.

bhagavadgItA. 13.26. bhAshya-- In this verse it is said that everything in
this world is brought into existence by the association of the 'field' and
the 'knower of the field', or, the self and the non-self. SrI Sankara points
out in his commentary on this verse that the association of these two is
only by superimposition, since there cannot be any real association between
the self, which is absolutely real and the non-self which has only empirical
reality. The non-self, (namely, the body, mind and organs,) is superimposed
on the self and, consciousness, which is the nature of the self, is
attributed to the body, mind and organs.

       SrI Sankara further points out in his *adhyAsa-bhAshya* on the
brahmasUtras that, when there is superimposition of one thing on another,
the latter (the substratum) is not affected in the least by the good or bad
qualities of the former. (e.g., nacre does not become more valuable because
it is mistaken for silver, nor does a rope get the qualities of the snake
which it is mistaken for). The implication of this statement is that the
self which is identical with brahman does not undergo any of the changes,
nor does it experience any of the joys and sorrows, of the body, mind and
organs which are superimposed on it. It is, however, only because of this
mutual superimposition of the self and the non-self that all action, both
secular and religious, including the study of vedAnta, becomes possible. The
self, by itself, is neither a doer of actions, nor an enjoyer of the
results. It becomes a doer and an enjoyer only because of this
superimposition, as a result of which, as SrI Sankara says, the real and the
unreal, namely, the self and the non-self, are blended into one, as it were.
All action, including the various rites laid down in the Vedas, thus come
within the sphere of *avidyA* or nescience, which is the cause of

       Superimposition is of two kinds. When a rope is mistaken for a snake,
the snake alone is seen. The existence of the rope is not known at all. Here
the snake is said to be superimposed on the rope. This is known as *
svarUpa-adhyaAsa.* The second kind of superimposition is when a crystal
appears to be red in the proximity of a red flower. Here both the crystal
and the flower are seen as existing, and the redness of the flower is
attributed to the crystal also. This is known as *samsarga-adhyAsa*. Both
these kinds of superimposition are present in the mutual superimposition of
the self and the non-self.

*       Because of the superimposition of the non-self on the self, the
existence of the self is not recognized at all, and the non-self, (that is,
the body, mind and organs), is alone recognized as existing. This is
svarUpa- adhyAsa. In the superimposition of the self on the non-self, only
the existence and consciousness aspects of the self are attributed to the
body, mind and organs. This is samsarga-adhyAsa. The result of this mutual
superimposition is that every one identifies himself with the body. This is
the root cause of all suffering. Giving up this wrong identification with
the body-mind complex and realizing that one is the self which is beyond all
suffering and all the pairs of opposites such as heat and cold, success and
failure and so on, is vidyA or knowledge. It is this knowledge that is
contained in the Upanishads.   *

  *  svarUpa-adhyAsa* is also known as *'nirupAdhika adhyAsa**', *or
superimposition without a limiting adjunct or *upAdhi.* The superimposition
of an illusory snake on a rope is of this type.* upAdhi* has been defined by
Bhaskararaya in his commentary on the name *'nirupAdhiH'* (No.154) in the
lalitAsahasranAma as--*upa samIpe* *AdadhAti svIyam dharmam—*that which
imparts its own quality to an object near it. A red flower which makes a
transparent crystal near it look red is an *upAdhi.* The superimposition of
the red colour on the crystal is a superimposition with *upAdhi* and it is
known as *'sopAdhika adhyAsa'*,which is the same as *samsarga adhyAsa.*

In the superimposition of the snake on the rope, the substratum is
considered to be the rope. But the rope itself is not real, and is a
superimposition on brahman or pure Consciousness. Therefore it is said in
vedAnta that the substratum is *'rajju-upahita chaitanyam'*, or, pure
Consciousness apparently limited by the rope. Every object in this world
should therefore be looked upon as brahman limited by that object, or,
Brahman in the form of that object—*sarvam khalu idam brahma.*

The illusory snake is described as *'prAtibhAsika'* or illusory; the rope,
like everything in this world, is *'vyAvahArika'*,or empirical reality. brahman
alone is* 'pAramArthika'*, or absolute reality.

Other examples of superimposition given here by SrI Sankara are---when one's
wife or son is happy or unhappy, one considers oneself also as happy or
unhappy; one attributes the qualities of the physical body, such as fatness,
leanness and so on, to oneself, when one says-"I am fat, I am lean, etc";
one says-"I am blind, deaf, etc", attributing the qualities of the
sense-organs to oneself. This superimposition is beginningless, it is of the
nature of illusory cognition and is the cause of the notion of agency and
enjoyership. The truth is that one is the *AtmA* which is free from all
these qualities. The wrong identification with the body, mind, organs, etc.,
can be removed only by the realization of one's real nature. The aim of
vedAnta is to enable one to attain this realization.


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